The Bush administration is looking into whether stiff controls over missile-technology exports should be relaxed so U.S. missile defenses can be more easily shared with certain other nations.

"As part of our efforts to deepen missile cooperation with friends and allies, the United States will seek to eliminate impediments to such cooperation," a White House statement said.

The statement seemed likely to touch off a lively debate in Congress, where even GOP allies of President Bush have been divided on the merits of relaxing such restrictions at a time of growing concerns over missile proliferation.

But the White House, in a five-page statement issued late Tuesday, suggested it was time to update its missile-defense strategy to take into account recent developments and threats in the war on terrorism.

"Hostile states, including those that sponsor terrorism, are investing large resources to develop and acquire ballistic missiles of increasing range and sophistication that could be used against the United States and or friends and allies," said the White House statement, prepared by the National Security Council (search).

In remarks that appeared directly primarily at North Korea, the statement said, "Some states are aggressively pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles as a means of coercing the United States and our allies."

The statement reiterated President Bush's goal to have a rudimentary missile-defense system in operation by next year, as well as his hopes of eventually bringing key allies under such an anti-missile shield.

However current U.S. export rules and international agreements make it hard for the United States to share missile systems, parts or technology with any but a handful of the nation's closest allies.

"We will review existing policies and practices governing technology sharing and cooperation on missile defense, including U.S. export control regulations and statutes," the White House statement said. It said such a review was based on making it easier to extend missile-defense protection to key allies.

U.S. officials insisted that the anti-missile program, in which interceptor missiles are designed to strike and destroy incoming enemy ballistic missiles, was strictly a defensive system, and thus would not contribute to proliferation of offensive weapons.

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, denied that any move to ease existing restrictions was imminent. The official said the subject was in the study process and "far from a decision."

But arms control advocates suggested any weakening of the existing rules could be a risky gamble, resulting in further missile proliferation -- even as Bush is seeking greater curbs on the spread of lethal weapons.

"It is a silly trade-off. It shows the administration is willing to compromise international controls to transfer missile technology" in hopes of advancing its missile-defense ambitions, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the private Arms Control Association (search).

As an example, he said an Israeli proposal to sell its Arrow missile defense system (search) to India could not go forward under the current rules but could if the restrictions were eased. Such a sale would come under U.S. jurisdiction because the Israeli system is based on U.S. technology.

The statement came as the Senate debated a defense bill that includes missile-defense provisions, and ahead of Bush's end-of-the-month trip to Russia and to France for a summit of the world's major industrial democracies.

Missile defense is expected to be an issue in Bush's talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin hopes to strike a deal with Bush for cooperation in missile defense systems, having yielded to Bush's abandonment of the 1972 treaty that banned national missile defenses.

White House aides denied that the statement was timed to coincide with either the congressional debate or the upcoming summits -- but that it seemed to be a good time to put out an updated version of the administration's missile-defense program.